Lessons from the Memphis 13: What 13 First Graders Have to Teach About Law, Life, and the Legacy of Brown
years after desegregating schools in Memphis as first graders, the
pioneering students shared their stories for the first time. The
resulting film, The Memphis 13 (2011), brought a largely overlooked
episode in the civil rights movement into the broader movement
narrative. In this essay, the film’s director – who also happens to be a
law professor – combines a first-person account of the intellectual
journey involved in meeting the pioneering students and their families
with a scholarly analysis of the implications of the students’ stories.
Specifically, the essay describes the intense isolation the students
experienced both during their experience desegregating schools and in
the decades that followed and questions the responsibility that lawyers
and movement leaders have to foot soldiers who are participating in a
social movement through no choice of their own. Looking back, the
students took widely divergent lessons from their experience,
demonstrating the complexity of crafting a meaningful remedy even for
individuals in the post-Brown era. The essay thus utilizes these
personal narratives to critique the choices made during the
desegregation effort. This real world testimony provides a fresh
perspective on longstanding debates that too often discount the
experiences of those most directly affected.
This article appeared in the Thurgood Marshall Law Review of Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. The full article is available here.